A Critical Moment in the Fight For Fair Housing in New Jersey

Promoted from the diaries by Rosi

We thank Jason Springer for inviting us to post an update on the current attempts to legalize exclusionary zoning, the practice banned under the New Jersey Constitution in which municipalities use their land use laws to allow only expensive homes and office parks, while banning starter homes and apartments. We are regular readers of Blue Jersey, and appreciate the invitation to contribute.

First, we look at Ray Lesniak’s effort to kill New Jersey’s fair housing laws. These laws banning exclusionary zoning have allowed 100,000 New Jerseyans over the past few decades the opportunity to live in towns that wanted to keep them out (LINK). His replacement legislation, S-1 (LINK), would not replace this system so much as destroy it: under the bill, scheduled for a full Senate vote on Monday, any town in New Jersey could impose restrictions that would exclude creation of all homes affordable to working- and middle-class families.

The bill has gone through four very different, and progressively worse, drafts in four weeks, with the latest draft only becoming publically available more than a day after the committee voted. As the details of the bill have become apparent, civil rights groups, clergy, environmentalists, non-profit and for-profit housing developers, organizations working with people with special needs, and housing advocates have all strongly opposed S-1. Sen. Lesniak has not allowed many of these groups to testify at the three hearings on the bill. (LINK)

Why is Sen. Lesniak, a supposed progressive, becoming the main accomplice in Gov. Christie’s drive to “gut” the state’s fair housing laws? Follow us below the fold for our suggestions.

One suggestion is that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing – at a press conference last week, he claimed to not have read an earlier draft of the bill that he sent to the media, which led to a scathing Star-Ledger editorial. Another suggestion comes from the NAACP, which has filed a formal ethics complaint with the Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards, charging that Sen. Lesniak and co-sponsor Sen. Kip Bateman are representing the desires of the 40-plus municipalities that their law firms represent – often directly on land use and housing issues – and not their constituents. (LINK)

Under the bill nearly every municipality in New Jersey would be deemed an “inclusionary community” based on a series of strange criteria such as the number of townhouses in the community (even if those townhouses cost far more than even middle-class people could afford) and zoning vacant land for McMansion-style residential development (again regardless of the cost of the homes). Reuse of existing developed land is excluded from consideration.

Once a municipality is deemed an “inclusionary community,” it need do nothing more than have residential developers make payments into a trust fund for construction of low- and moderate-income housing. A municipality may decide whether or not it wishes to spend the money. After four years, if the municipality has not spent the money, it reverts to the state – with, as they say on TV, no further obligation to do anything.

To give an example, Summit – a community where Habitat for Humanity has been struggling to get approval to build six townhouses on land that they own – is deemed an “inclusionary community” based on having a lot of existing apartments and townhouses, even though the costs of those homes may be $500,000 or more. When redevelopment happens in Summit – exactly the kind of place where growth should go in New Jersey, with a lot of jobs locally and good access to transit – the developer can pay into a trust fund. Summit could choose to use that money to help Habitat for Humanity build homes. Or it could bow to the local anti-Habitat for Humanity crowd and simply sit on the money for four years, then have it revert to the state.

That’s in contrast to current law – in which Summit, because of its shortage of modestly priced homes, is required to approve Habitat for Humanity’s development or face a lawsuit.

And there’s more: the law brings back Regional Contribution Agreements (LINK), the payments from wealthy, job-rich towns to poor towns to take their housing obligations, which former Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts led a successful drive to ban in 2008. It also ends municipalities’ longstanding local discretion to charge a fee on new office parks and shopping centers, a tool that many towns have successfully used for over 20 years to build new homes.

The law has not been heard even in committee in the Assembly yet, which to date has taken a cautious approach to Lesniak’s barnstorming. At this point the bill cannot be heard until after the budget recess.

In February, Gov. Christie claimed the power to shut down the Council on Affordable Housing, the agency that enforces exclusionary zoning laws throughout the state, despite the fact that courts and the Legislature have required it to operate. He unilaterally imposed through Executive Order 12 a 90 day moratorium on COAH’s operations, which municipalities immediately took as a cue to shut down even developments already in the process of getting built. We asked the Appellate Division court to grant an injunction against the Executive Order, which they did 10 days after it was issued. We have an argument on a permanent invalidation of the Executive Order on Monday in Newark at 11. The State has filed a brief laying out a blueprint for greatly expanded gubernatorial powers heretofore unseen in New Jersey – arguing that the Governor may invalidate adopted regulations and choose “more effective and efficient means” to implement legislative requirements even if the Legislature has required that the Governor act in a certain way. Many of these arguments have been considered, and rejected, on the federal level over the past two decades. We are asking that the Appellate Division similarly invalidate the Executive Order, not just because it violates the state’s housing laws and relevant constitutional provisions, but also because it sets a dangerous precedent for the entire operation of government.

If you want to learn more about these issues, you can visit our website, www.fairsharehousing.org, and subscribe to our e-mail newsletter and/or RSS feed, or join our new Facebook group. We will also continue to post updates on Blue Jersey and again appreciate the opportunity to be part of this great community.

Comment (1)

  1. IndependentNJ

    I do not feel that New Jersey’s housing laws go far enough to protect people.

    One of the major malfunctions that is preventing affordable housing from being available is restrictive zoning laws.

    Say for example a persyn has a 2 story house and is about to retire and the house has become too big for them. They decide to convert the upstairs to an apartment (ie: put in a separate bathroom, a common area, a kitchen, and 1 or more bedrooms).

    This is a win-win situation, the working poor can find an affordable apartment and the retiree can get some income from that.

    However, in many towns, the persyn would not be able to do so because of zoning ordinances. It has nothing to do with health or safety, but rather to keep “undesirables” out of their neighborhood.

    It may surprise ypu all to know that the libertarian candidate for governor in 2009 came up with the idea of banning zoning ordinances which ban the conversion of single-family to multi-family households.

    However, my position is, any homeowner can convert a single family household into a multi-family household as long as the unit has a common area, a bathroom, a kitchen, and 1 or more bedrooms, and has a separate entrance, which is easy to do in most instances.

    Also, having 21 countywide school districts instead of 616 small, inefficient, bloated school districts; having 21 sheriffs offices in charge of front line all enforcement within the county instead of 450-500 small nation armies and having to spend state monies on trooper patrols for rural areas; having 21 housing authorities to cut overhead, while creating enough Section 8 vouchers to take care of needs, and for greater portability; would bring down property taxation greatly and thus reduce the need for special affordable housing.




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